'Gratitude' cash costs Japan's royals dear

RICHARD LLOYD PARRY

Tokyo

The brick of banknotes was nine inches thick, delicately wrapped in the finest hand-made paper. Bowing deeply and with profuse expressions of thanks, the small-town politician presented it to the frowning retainer. Once the business was completed, he was led to the back of the big house for an audience with the real recipient of the cash - his town's patron, Mr Big himself.

The scene, described by the mayor of a small city in central Japan, is familiar from a hundred Japanese movies. But in this case there was a difference. For this Mr Big was not a gang chief or corrupt politician trading favours for cash, but the late Prince Takamatsu, a member of the imperial family and an uncle of the Emperor. The contents of the mayor's parcel, and his annual visits to the prince's Tokyo residence, have publicly embarrassed Japan's reclusive imperial family.

The scandal has innocent origins. Every year Otsu, a humble lakeside city near Kyoto, holds a bicycle race, the Takamatsu Cup. The prince, a keen sportsman who died of cancer in 1987, attended regularly as a young man. The six-day race brings crowds of visitors to Otsu, and 32bn yen (pounds 200m) in bets. But the bookies have not been the only beneficiaries. Since 1950, Otsu has been paying the Takamatsu family large sums of money simply for the use of its name. In 1978 the "gratitude money" amounted to 500,000 yen (pounds 3,150 at today's rates). But last year, the prince's widow received 10m yen (pounds 63,000). "We wanted to give a respectable gift," the embarrassed mayor explained, "the kind of sum that wouldn't appear discourteous.'' Records for the first 20 years of the race are lost, but since 1971 the city's courtesy to the Takamatsu family has amounted to 122m yen (pounds 766,000).

The arrangement, unknown to all but a few city officials, was uncovered by a Communist member of Otsu council, and the scandal quickly spread. Potentially, this was more than an embarrassment. Apart from the shady details about wads of bank notes and the secret hand-overs, the affair raised serious legal questions. Article 8 of Japan's constitution states: "No property can be given to, or received by, the Imperial House", and the Imperial House Economy Law requires permission from the Diet for gifts of more than 1.6m yen (pounds 10,000). The prince's family clearly had broken the law.

Within a week, another gratitude scam had been uncovered, involving the Emperor's cousin, Prince Tomohito, who netted 22m yen from a cycle race in another city. Last week, after an investigation by the Imperial Household Agency, the ministry which overseas royal affairs, the matter was brought to a hasty conclusion. Both city councils received cheques recouping their donations.

"Gratitude money above 1m yen is far above the socially acceptable level, even if the money was offered to the imperial families," the agency said. "The public does not condone such practices." The agency's director general declared: "The families accepted the money as donations. They must not have been aware of proper procedures required by the law."

Plenty of questions remain unanswered. Could members of the imperial household have been unaware of an article of the constitution? And, as servant, treasurer and social secretary to the princes, was the agency as ignorant of the donations as it suggested?

Even more interesting is the light the affair casts on the status of the imperial family. Direct criticism of the imperial institution is still taboo in Japan, partly for fear of ultra-nationalists who threaten radical journalists. But if the media seldom makes a target of royalty, it does not display exaggerated respect either, as the recent scandal showed. The story broke in the liberal Asahi Shimbun, but even the conservative Yomiuri was outspoken in its criticism, urging an open debate and expressing incredulity at the Imperial Household Agency's explanation.

The most poignant aspect of the affair is the light it casts on imperial finances. Outside the Emperor's immediate family, an imperial prince receives an annual stipend of 27.1m yen (pounds 170,000) a year, and a princess half of that. All other income, from books and speeches for instance, is taxed, as are inheritances. When Prince Takamatsu died, his widow was forced to give the nation most of his estate, to keep a small part of it. The mayor of Otsu told a sad story about this. "On one occasion, when I'd given the money to one of the officers, the princess smiled at me. 'I don't have any voting rights', she told me, 'but I still have to pay inheritance tax'."

Prince Tomohito, the other race sponsor, suffers from cancer and recently came out of hospital. Unlike a commoner, he receives no social security.

In medieval Japan, some emperors were reduced to such poverty that one was forced to sell his autograph to buy food. Things are not that bad yet, but the most surprising thing about the cycle-race scandal is that Prince Takamatsu and Prince Tomohito genuinely seem to have needed the money.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick